In 1960 at the age of 58, the novelist John Steinbeck began a journey across America, driving all the way in a truck, accompanied only by his dog Charley. Having already suffered a minor stroke, it was a gesture of defiance in the face of oncoming infirmity as Steinbeck set off to reacquaint himself with his country. Fifty years later, Dutch author Geert Mak set out to recreate the trip. The result is this travelogue, In America.
Mak’s account has one main weakness in that he has a particular agenda. He wants to report on the rise of the radical right in the USA, so he spends his trip gorging on Fox News and listening to ‘shock jocks’ on the radio. Personally, I don’t believe that most people in the US listen to these people while they’re driving down the interstate. I’m beginning to wonder if the right-wing DJ Rush Limbaugh’s audience figures are mostly composed of European intellectuals looking for something to be offended about.
Those shortcomings only make up a tiny portion of the book, and, thankfully, Mak has a sardonic wit, which he uses to land clear blows on the objects of his derision.
There’s a fear of terrorist attacks in Far-Off Europe … the United States has even issued a travel advisory. Americans are advised to be extremely careful in European countries. As for me, I’m heading for Detroit (some 360 murders a year), Chicago (450), and New Orleans (170) but no one in authority has given me any warnings.
In fact, Mak soon gets bored of Steinbeck as he discovers that the great man had made up most of what he wrote about on his 1960s road trip. Once Mak begins exploring America for himself and talking to real people, the book really comes into its own.
Even having gone to school in the US, there were things here which I had never heard of before. For example, did you know that
Thirty out of the fifty American states have fewer inhabitants than Denmark [c.5.5 million].
Mak is even better on US history. I loved the section on the early puritans:
In Massachusetts in 1663 a law was introduced that made time-wasting a punishable offence: ‘No person, householder or other, shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict’.
Icons and heroes of American history are also subject to Mak’s investigating eye. When he turns his attention to Custer’s Last Stand, we discover that there wasn’t much heroic about the army’s actions at The Battle of the Little Big Horn.
it is now possible to reconstruct fairly accurately the movements of many of the men on the battlefield. In a few places, there are signs of organised resistance, but in general, everyone ran for his life … The entire battle may have lasted no more than twenty minutes.
Not being a fan of Steinbeck, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It is very well-written, although it is strange that such an intelligent commentator can come up with silly generalisations like:
Americans like opportunities; Europeans prefer certainties.
Nevertheless, in the main, this is a thoughtful and revealing study of the United States. The funny thing is that at the end of their trips, both Steinbeck and Mak ended up profoundly depressed about the state of the nation. It must be something that affects men of a certain age (Mak is in his sixties) because it seems to me that the United States will continue setting the cultural agenda of the world for decades if not centuries to come. That’s why we all keep reading books like this.